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A few tips for setting up a garden

from Sara McCamant CSE volunteer and Ceres Garden Manager

The shelter-at-home order has brought out the gardener in many of us, and in this stressful time, I cannot think of a better place to be than out in our gardens. We can grow healthy food and bypass going to the store as well as enjoy the outside sunshine for our mental health by gardening. I have a few recommendations for setting up your garden, including what you should (and shouldn’t) be planting right now, when to plant, and more. May you find peace and solace during these challenging times. 

What to be planting right now: arugula, lettuce, kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, cilantro, parsley, celery, potatoes, and love. 


What I am not planting yet: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, beans, basil.   

When to Plant: Sonoma and Marin counties are full of different microclimates. Where you live makes a huge difference for planting tomatoes and other warm-season crops that will die if we get frost. If you do not know when your average frost-free day is, ask a neighbor who has a garden. Where I live, there is a cold spot that easily gets frost into mid-May. A neighbor who lives up the hill from you will have a different microclimate from yours. Remember that cold sinks, so low spots are cold and tend to be wetter, meaning a later summer planting time. I tend to wait until at least the first of May if not May 15th to plant my summer garden.

     iGROW Sonoma has a great compilation of resources, including a simple chart of what to plant when for further guidance (this chart is applicable to both Sonoma and Marin counties). You can find the chart on this website under the Resources tab.  

     If you decide to buy seedlings instead of growing them from seed, remember that just because the nurseries are selling it now does not mean it’s time to plant it now. Know your microclimate — when is the normal last frost — don’t plant summer crops before then unless you are going to give them some protection. 


Buying Seedlings at a Nursery: Make sure you check out the plants you are buying. Bigger is not necessarily better. You do not want plants that are root-bound because this means the plant is a bit stressed. If the plant looks large for the pot, try taking a peek at the roots; if they are crowded in there, they are root-bound. I recommend looking for healthy plants with no flowers and lots of roots without being root-bound. 

Direct Planting or Transplanting: There is something miraculous in watching a seed you planted sprout and become a plant. I love to plant many things from seed, and I am sometimes surprised by what I see in the nurseries, as many plants really prefer to be directly planted by seed in the ground. I always transplant tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, onions, kale, chard, broccoli, the cabbage family and most of my lettuce. But I think squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, and beets all prefer to be directly seeded. It is much cheaper to buy seeds than plants, but there is a care and commitment that is needed to direct seed, as the seed beds must be kept moist. 

     You can learn more from the UC Master Gardeners. Year Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County provides information on planting windows, whether to direct sow or use transplants, spacing, days to maturity, harvest notes and more. 


A quick tip: Pests are heavy in the spring. Protect your new seedlings from slugs and snails by using Sluggo, little cups of beer or copper around them.

Additional Educational Resources

Permaculture Skill Center: Building Your Pandemic Victory Garden Training with Erik Ohlsen 

UC Master Gardeners of Sonoma County: Food Gardening articles

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